Interview: Kevin Martin (The Bug/King Midas Sound/Zonal)
Kevin Martin has released music under a multitude of different projects over the last twenty five years. From The Bug and King Midas Sound to Zonal and beyond, his music has always been forward thinking and always pushing the boundaries of sound. With his new solo album Sirens, his first under his own name, he pushes his music into the most deeply personal areas of his career and the results are sublime and highly emotive. We had a very detailed chat with Kevin about Sirens and a whole host of other topics including the status of the new Bug and Zonal albums, working with Justin Broadrick, Burial, Dylan Carlson, Fennesz, King Midas Sound, the energy of grime and punk, his Pressure nights and his upcoming appearance at Supersonic Festival. It was a pleasure to chat with someone who has as much passion about music and sound as Kevin does and the varied music he has released and is about to be released.
(((o))): Going back to the to the to the early days of grime, and the energy that turned your head to it. As a fan of punk bands like Discharge and Killing Joke, was there an energy that reminded you of punk bands?
Yeah, absolutely. I can remember seeing Roll Deep at Fabric and I just remember going to grime parties in the East End of London. You’d basically see people jumping up on the stage and punching a vocalist and you’d see a vocalist jumping back into the crowd and there would just be massive fights. With seeing Roll Deep at Fabric, there’d be like 13 dudes on stage trying to grab a mic. It’s pandemonium, but energy and fire. You’ve got the feeling the MCs were doing this because they had to let off steam in the same way a lot of punk vocalists.
(((o))): As a massive fan of reggae and dancehall, was jungle a type of music you’re into and consider making at any point?
I did do a couple of drum & bass tracks for Justin. But we did them under different names and for a label called Four Sync. One was under the name of Razor. I can’t remember under what name we did the other one. Justin got far more into that than me. I love jungle and then when it transformed into Drum & Bass. Some of the really early Drum & Bass artists like Bad Company and Ram Trilogy were incredible too. But it was Dillinja in particular who was doing it for me. He was just consistently fucking incredible and definitely inspired me in terms as a producer.
Also what he did with the Valve Soundsystem. Just his approach to sound and his use of space. His use of texture and tone and in particular. His analogue techniques were just amazing and inspired me very much. But I think it’s dangerous for people involved in and around dance music to just jump on the bandwagon stylistically because you lose your identity, and it looks cheap. It just seems a bit desperate, there’s lots of amazing producers who decided to jump on one bandwagon after another and I don’t want to be that. I want people to dance their asses off of my shows but I don’t regard myself as a dance artist per se. I want everything, I’m greedy with sound, intent, and with philosophy. I just want to overwhelm people with sound even if it flattens them and they can’t dance. I think I’m very wary of a lot of producers who just jump one ship to another.
(((o))): Was it that physical element of sound that was the ethos with the Pressure nights you’ve been putting on?
Yeah, Pressure was really inspired by the Sub:Dub night that I used to go to in London and the great job that Simon Scott did there. He was also the founder of Outlook festival and does the Sub:Dub events up in Leeds. He performed tremendous nights in London with Sub:Dub. In one room you would have Iration Steppas with their sound system, and then in another room you would have Mala and Coki. In another room you would have D Double E and grime and that was my deal. It’s like the idea of just getting the best of all worlds. Why limit yourself to one world? In Berlin it is so techno centric and the tyranny of 4:4 reigns supreme so it’s a major battle to bring something on my terms to the city. But Pressure generally is just inspired by sound system culture and having gone to the first sound clash I’d ever been to which was The Disciples vs. Iration Steppas when I moved to London. Being inspired by Jamaican music and sound system music generally. With Pressure, the modus operandi is just to give people a clubbing experience that’s uncompromising and intense.
(((o))): Have you been blown away by the reactions of the ones you’ve put on so far?
Yeah, it’s been wicked man! I mean, it’s about what you know. It’s really a battle in Berlin to get the numbers in the door. It’s okay if you’ve got a big financial backer or your business is just promoting. Mine isn’t, and I don’t have money around me. It’s a struggle in that respect but it’s a joy when you see people reacting to the music as they generally do. At Pressure you get a sense in their reactions and it’s apparent to people I’m trying to do something legit, and is still fresh and overwhelming.
(((o))): Will you be doing more this year at all?
We’ve got plans for a really big London one, the lineups already there and already put together and that’s going to be in October, and I’m really looking forward to that and it’s in a venue with a massive system. I’m really looking forward to bringing another Pressure to London because the the ones we’ve done so far have been fantastic. There’s been Pressure parties in London and Amsterdam, so many places outside Berlin at this point and those have all went really well in the past thankfully.
(((o))): There’s another Miss Red EP out now. Is it in a similar style to the album?
She and I both felt we should stretch the parameters more than K.O. For us it is fairly eclectic. I think for most people, it’s just war and nasty so we wanted to stretch her parameters, philosophically and artistically. She wanted to show people what she’s capable of more with Four Bodies. Each of the four tracks is quite radically different stylistically, sonically, and lyrically. Yes, she’s very proud and happy with the the product and I am too.
She’s a joy to work with because she’s a really hard worker and she’s taken the difficult route. She could have just cleaned up and stuck to the reggae scene. Stayed working with pretty generic reggae producers mimicking styles and working 30 years. But she wants to be a true artist and develop her own voice, with a sound behind her. That’s original, so I tip my hat to her because a lot of people her age and in her situation went for the easy money, the quick fix, and safety. She has chosen a more dangerous route, which is more volatile, and sometimes can be a lot rougher.
(((o))): King Midas Sound released the Solitude album earlier in the year. How was the experience with making that album? And have you been pleased with the reaction to it?
The Solitude album is a weird one because at one point there it was never going to be released. We effectively split up badly and didn’t speak to each other for a long period of time after a show in Poland. This was before the show. It ended up wicked it because of it, but we had a sort of meltdown. The album had already been recorded before that meltdown.
Just by chance, I was at home couple of years later and one of the tracks came on as iTunes was just skipping through randomly. Me and my wife were like whoa, that track does sound ridiculous. Then I played it a few more to remind myself because I hadn’t listened to the shit since we recorded it really. I just got on Facebook to write him a message and said, Look Roger, I know shit went pear shaped, but this album is nuts and I think it would be really good to get it out there. How do you feel about it? And he said, I’m cool. What’s your idea? What’s your plan? I said let’s just send it out to labels and see if I can get someone to release it. All credit to Nino at Shapednoise because they said they wanted to do it straight away. Whereas a couple of other labels we approached with it were dilly dallying.
One label we were very keen on said they couldn’t release it for nearly two years and we were like fuck that! Another label, with someone I really respect ended up saying something like well, you know, I’m a bit worried about putting a record like this out at this time because everyone is being very conscious of gender and politics at the moment. I was like what are you talking about, there’s no agenda. Its immaterial and solitude is a global emotion that affects men and women equally. He’s said no it’s very much a male protagonist and I said it’s got nothing to do with it being male. What the fuck, it’s the taboo of solitude and loneliness that we all suffer from one or more periods of our life. So we went back to Nino and he did an amazing job. We’re really happy with the job he did and the response critically was absolutely phenomenal for us. I mean, we were shocked, like floored by the response because we thought it would really divide people a lot more and some people would just hate it.
Critically the reviews were just all pretty amazing really. Shockingly so to the extent of understanding what we tried to do. It was flattering and very surprising sales wise. To sell anything these days is a fucking nightmare, so what it’s done is enable us to start doing some shows based around the album and they’ve been a delight for me. I think the best shows King Midas Sound have ever done. It’s like we found a focal point and a way of expressing ourselves. Our agents have been booking us into like theatres and dance venues where for all the Midas stuff I wouldn’t have been very keen to go in at all because of the seating. Last thing I thought I’d want to do is perform in a seated venue but actually there’s a theatricality to that album. A sort of artistic presence that is really suited those areas, and we’re trying to do something very fresh within how we present those tracks live.
The handful of shows we’ve already done have been pretty extraordinary for us. We played last weekend, and I remember saying to Roger, Yo, man, I really want to do more of these shows and let people see this. This is like nothing else. I can’t even compare it to anything else. I don’t know who else is doing anything like it. So we’re fiercely proud of what we’re doing. We’ve always tried to do something unpredictable, unusual, and in singular individual with Midas.
(((o))): You’ve also worked with a host of other artist including Burial, Dylan Carlson, and Fennesz. How was the experience of working with those different artists?
Everyone’s different, everyone’s individual, and as I said earlier about vocalists, same as musicians, It’s fucking amazing to be able to work with such incredible artists, and they are artists trust me. I remember when Dylan Carlson was recording in LA, me sneaking into the room to see which pedals he used because I’m a total geek for electronics, and gadgets. My studio is like a spaceship so I was wanting to know how he got that amazing sound and it was just from the most minimal impact. Just how he plays, his style, and how he expresses himself through his instrument that gives it that sound.
With Burial, Will, is absolutely unbelievable. I remember the first time Kode9 played me the demos that went on to be the first album. He asked me what I thought, and unusually I was on point. I said, you know what Steve, I think this is could clean up because it could appeal to people when they come home from the club. They’re lucky to be able to adopt electronic people, dance people, and it’s got a mood that’s just irresistible. He was laughing at me, saying you think so. Lo and behold, he went stellar. To work with Will, my appreciation of him as a craftsman is just unquestionable. How he approaches sound and the stuff he sends me has been so impressive. His approach to texture and tone, and just his militancy. How he chooses to work and release this stuff is just very admirable.
What’s really good to see for me is that someone like Dylan who struggled for so many years, and had other bands come and basically take his sound and become much richer off it. To finally see that he’s getting his returns, that he’s finally selling out shows regularly, and I’m guessing getting good money with that. With Burial, it’s nice to see that quality without compromising can pay off because so many people make compromises or just make the decisions to make easy money, and to sell their audiences short or themselves. It was the same with Fennesz. I remember the first show we played with Fennesz, King Midas, me and Roger. Jaws were literally hitting the floor. The first chord Fennesz struck was just like wow! He’s someone else who’s a very nice person. All three that you’ve mentioned, they are incredibly sweet as people. Yet relentlessly uncompromising in their artistic visions. You don’t have to be an asshole to be uncompromising, far from it. They’re great adverts for being great people and great artists. Sorry, I wish I could give you some nasty stuff haha!
(((o))): You’re playing at the Supersonic Festival at the end of July as The Bug with Moor Mother. What can we expect from your performance in Birmingham?
I’m still discussing with Camae how we are going to do it. We haven’t recorded together. There’s no Bug and Moor Mother material so it’s going to be me taking stuff that I’ve done in the past. Maybe doing specialised mixes and layering and reducing stuff in a live situation. I guess her doing the same on her part but we’re both mad excited about it! It seems like an idea that could really work. The idea actually came from Matt Schultz who who runs Unsound festival. He wanted to do it in America. I think it was and somehow it didn’t happen. But I mentioned it to my agent who thought it was a banging idea. Just because Camae and I are both born of fire and need to express ourselves in that way. I just love the idea of her tone with my texture.
(((o))): You played the very first Supersonic and you’ve played it numerous times since as The Bug, with Dylan Carlson, and Zonal. What does festival mean to you as an artist?
It’s an unusual festival for many reasons. The most obvious is it’s run by women who are completely besotted by good music, who have great taste, and who are uncompromising in their programming. Generally festivals are run by men trying to make a lot of money. So they’re either festivals that are mostly very commercial, or on the other side just hipster fashion trend vehicles. But Supersonic, they have an aesthetic for sure, and certain artists that they’re probably going to book. There has been so many times where I’ve discovered an artist I hadn’t known before. I’ve been lucky enough to just traipse around the festival and discover shit I didn’t know. I remember not knowing Nisennenmondai until Supersonic and I hadn’t known Barn Owl until Supersonic. That’s two instances I can think of off the top of my head.
I think it’s unusual that so many festivals try and be current and Supersonic do that too. They also aren’t afraid of booking people every year or every other year and keeping some sense of continuity in their bookings. I think they’ve mutated in a good way and I think they’ve shaped shifted well too. But it’s never felt like it’s just done to be trendy or to make easy money. The audience is very receptive. I remember playing in there one year in particular with Flowdan, Killa P and Miss Red. Daddy Freddy bailed unexpectedly and walking around with my wife and Miss Red and wondering, you’d have Merzbow destroying your ears, in another room you have to Kevin Drumm just droning you into oblivion. I remember saying to Miss Red, Oh, my God, we’re going to die tonight. I’m thinking people are really gonna think we sound like pop after this shit! Is this audience here for this night, ready to give us a chance? Actually, the reaction was extraordinary! People were going off the wall, bouncing off walls, off each other, mad mosh pit and I think people were ready to let go and wanted something that they can move to by the time we came on. So the audience and the team behind this are just very positive. It is a very positive festival run by very positive people and attended by very positive people. Yet, very often they just want to soundtrack hell sonically! I love it. I love that the festival comes from Birmingham, an unglamorous city and it’s not a typical taste centre. I think that’s crucial too.
(((o))): You’ve curated a stage at the Le Guess Who? festival in the Netherlands in November. How did it feel when you were asked? And how much of a thrill was it choosing the artists to play that you did?
Yeah, blown away. I didn’t expect to be asked. My agent told me and I just remember jumping up and down screaming to my wife. It’s an honour to be able to choose which artist. You can let your dreams go wild. The same time I was curating it, I was aware of how many of my favourite artists had played the last year or the year before so I guess that might rule them out. I was saying, well how about Erykah Badu or My Bloody Valentine, knowing that their budgets probably wouldn’t stretch, but just chancing my arm anyway!
The guy that invited me, I take my hat off to him because last year, for instance at the festival I was having some heavy discussions with the organisers and the stage crews about them not allowing me to perform at the volume I wanted to with Miss Red. They know I’m difficult in terms of not just accepting things at face value and he stood my ground. Where people I’ve booked are Godflesh, Jah Shaka, Caspar Brotzmann who are going to be fucking loud, obviously, and who are just amazing, and just the wish list that I was able to attain. I’m so happy with it. I’d love to programme the whole fucking festival if I could but the fact that they’ve managed to secure the bookings of people I’m in huge admiration of. I wanted it to be my past, present and future. Slikback is one of the most interesting electronic artists to have come around for a long time. And obviously Jah Shaka and Godflesh inspired me to do what I do today. So it has so many purposes. Most of all, it’s just to bring them quality music. If people don’t know it before, hopefully after the fact, they’ll just be like where this stuff will have the same impact on them as it had on me.
(((o))): Do still love playing in a live arena, and do you still get the same feelings now when you do after doing it for so long?
Yeah, 100%. Maybe your regular head is different that you’ve got your tech team, you’ve got your set fee, you’re going to be playing to thousands of people. I virtually never know from show to show how many people I’m going to play to. It’s the inconsistency that keeps it interesting. I can’t say there’s not times where I feel like headbutting the wall or just like dropping on the ground in despair. But there’s far more times where I’m just overjoyed and just humbled by the reaction and just loving the fact that I’m able to express myself through music. Which was always my dream and necessity.
(((o))): On your social media platforms, you have done war reports detailing your performances. Do you find that this gives you a chance to look back on your performance and how you can improve?
To be honest, generally, I stopped doing those reports about year and a half ago, or somewhere around there. I want to just thank people to the shows. The reports were more because I was just fed up with promoters not living up to their side of the bargain. I was putting everything in and I felt they weren’t. I wanted to address it and see what happened. I got a lot of shit for putting those reports up from agents and promoters. I lost shows undoubtedly. I don’t get bookings because of my reputation now and some of my reputation came from doing those reports for being uncompromising and upfront. I didn’t stop it because of those reasons. I stopped them because I lost shows, but I gained better conditions where most promoters now realise that they’re gonna have to get it right. I don’t have to publicise the fact because they’re worried I will publicise it. If I have a really bad show I will publicise it, but I also publicise the good shows.
The funny thing about the war reports is most people talk about it or talk to me about it generally remember the bad ones. Whereas I would say 60 to 70% of the reports were very positive, and I learned from every show. I’m forever tweaking and changing things and writing myself. Not getting shit right sometimes as well and making bad decisions. So it’s not good growth. Playing shows is never ending. Same as production. That’s the beauty of it, it doesn’t feel finite, it’s connected to my growth as a human being in terms of how I translate and how I formulate.
(((o))): Two final questions. Do you have good memories of making the Razor X Productions album? And would you ever do anything similar to that again?
Yeah, Razor X was a trip. It was logically inspired by my love of dancehall, and ragga. Which most didn’t really know about apart from a guy called DJ Scott. I didn’t really know anyone else who was interested in those areas. Scott at the time was a friend of mine and I kept encouraging him to work with Jamaican MCs saying you should do that kind of shit live and work with these guys in the studio. Just sampling and using acapellas and he kept coming with excuses. We went our separate ways for various reasons anyway. I thought well fuck it if he’s not going to do it, I’m going to try this shit because I think it could sound fucking dope. I wanted to get rid of the elements of dancehall I found a bit too cheesy and I wanted to just accelerate into just like insanity really. I just wanted to make tracks with Razor X that would end the party and sound like sound systems exploding.
Luckily enough I’ve been friends with a guy called the Rootsman who also started making music through punk before he got into reggae. Then he was reggae through and through by the time I met him. He was recording with some of the greats and he was a fan of Techno Animal. He linked me up with Daddy Freddy and he’s credited because he gave me the acapella and I did all the production. But without him I would’ve never been able to do this production. So I felt it was the least I could do. He was mad generous and helpful in his time and advice, and put me on the right path. Without him I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. Introducing me to Freddy was a big thing as well.
This Bug stuff I’m working on at the moment is not going to have the same gratuitous noise levels. But it’s going to be filthy, nasty, and absolutely in your face! So the stuff I’m working on I’m about producing them and I feel there’s better ways to express. As I said earlier in this interview, I don’t really want to repeat myself or become a caricature. I feel tracks like Killer, WWW, or Slew Dem that I did at the time were as ultimate as it’s possible to get in that form. I don’t know what else I could do that I didn’t already do. Generally my inspiration comes from always trying to make music that’s in my imagination that no one else has done. Somehow I gravitate towards taking the difficult path. I could have easily just done it to formula, or noise rock with jazz or whatever. I just want my personal music, tap my personal voice and stamp my individuality.
Going back to doing Razor X wouldn’t really make a lot of sense to me. You’re not alone, I’m flattered that people still talk about it. And you know, that without Razor X the irony is that it’s probably some of the most extreme music I ever made. But it got me to some of the most commercial areas ever. Thom Yorke approached me after that stuff. Massive Attack got into my shit after that. MIA and her manager approached me to work with her because they were inspired by that stuff, right at her beginning before just she’d only released Galang at the time. I remember sitting on a couch next to Grace Jones when she was acapella repeating the lyrics to Killer. So for me it’s mad that the stuff I’ve made literally on the most basic gear in shit conditions before I knew what I was doing had the most impact. But there you go, I think there’s a moral in that.
(((o))): This has been absolutely phenomenal! Thank you Kevin.
It’s a pleasure, man. And thank you for your interest.